Doctor Who: “The Zygon Invasion”

And just like that we’re back in a classic mode, in this case the Earth invasion stories that introduced UNIT in 1970 and continued through the mid-70s. Some would say this mode peaked in 1975 with “Terror of the Zygons,” the only story of the classic series to feature them (and their cybernetic Loch Ness Monster). Even in that story they were explicitly refugees, unable to return to a home planet destroyed in a stellar explosion. This, along with their shapeshifting ability, makes them an ideal choice for an uncomfortably on-the-nose story about current events, including radical terrorist insurgency and the Syrian refugee crisis.

It’s gripping stuff, to be sure. It makes the previous six episodes, enjoyable as they were, seem like a lot of playing around. If you’re alive in the world today you can’t fail to be interested in these topics, regardless of your position on them, and they’re treated in a way that might seem unusually gritty to Doctor Who fans who’ve never seen the classic series. The body count is high, even if the corpses are tastefully if somewhat comically represented by electrified hairballs. Children are kidnapped and apparently murdered. There is an extended scene in which a soldier points a gun at a woman who may or may not be his mother and deliberates about whether to shoot her down. You can’t really accuse this episode of playing around.

You can accuse it of jumping around a bit, and it’s a little confusing just what exactly the plan is half the time. It seems that the peace treaty between humans and Zygons negotiated in “Day of the Doctor” allowed Zygons to remain on Earth and live side by side with humans as long as they never ever revealed themselves as Zygons. Of course, they are apparently exact copies of living humans, and while the two Osgoods could easily have lived as twin sisters it’s not clear how the other 19,999,999 copies are supposed to coexist without anyone noticing. It’s an ambitious idea, to put it mildly, but perhaps very slightly easier to swallow than the idea that the moon has always been an egg. When one Zygon child accidentally reveals its true form, all hell breaks loose and suddenly the Zygons (or at least a radical splinter group of them) decide the war is back on and it’s back to imitating humans for purposes of infiltration and murder, not assimilation. Our heroes split up, which as always is a terrible idea, and what ensues is scene after scene of tricky tricky Zygons doing nefarious things.

All sorts of interesting questions are sidestepped. Before the treaty fell apart, what was life like for a Zygon — a hulking, moist, hissing amphibious-looking creature with limited social grace by human standards — trying to fit into human society? Were there enclaves or settlements where they could stretch out their suckers and relax where humans couldn’t see them? Did they pay taxes, shop, go to hospitals? A couple scenes of these would not only have been entertaining and intriguing but would more importantly have set the stage for the idea that this treaty was a viable strategy for peace and that the Zygons actually deserve some measure of compassion.

Because “The Zygon Invasion” does a lot of work to erode any sympathy we might feel for the creatures. Scene after scene shows them as conniving, ruthless, bloodthirsty murderers, willing to use literally duplicitous tactics to play on human scruples and gain the upper hand. In one scene a drone pilot can’t bring herself to bomb a Zygon family that appears too much like her own. In another Clara seems bizarrely willing to overlook what appears to be a child afraid of his own parents (though this is later explained). And then there’s that scene with the soldier and his mom. None of this is likely to endear Peter Harness to the crowd who felt his previous “Kill the Moon” read as a pro-life allegory, and are likely to read this one as an anti-Muslim anti-refugee polemic, despite the “splinter group” and anti-assimilation dodges. It seems inevitable that we’re being set up to change our minds about them in the conclusion (whose very title, “The Zygon Inversion,” all but promises this), but Harness has gone to great lengths to make this seem impossible.

He’s also gone to great lengths to ensure this episode passes the Bechdel Test. Like his previous “Kill the Moon,” “The Zygon Invasion” keeps most of its male characters to the sidelines in favor of its female leads. The military leader working with the Doctor, the drone pilot, the sheriff of Truth and Consequences, the two ousted Zygon leaders, all female, and all for the most part well cast and acted. Clara gets a bit more to do this time around, after being absent for most of “The Woman Who Lived.” And of course Osgood’s back, and terrific; we may never know if she’s the human or the Zygon Osgood, since it’s become a moral issue for her not to disclose her origins.

Sadly, it’s our UNIT crew who still fail to inspire confidence. Even though they’ve supposedly shifted from a military focus to a scientific one, and even though she’s considerably stronger here than she has been in most of her previous appearances, Kate Stewart still seems strangely inadequate to the task at hand, and Jaye Griffith’s character Jac seems completely at sea in a crisis. To be fair, classic series UNIT’s Sergeant Benton and Captain Yates never came off as the most hardened of military men either, but still.

Then there’s the Doctor, curiously passive just as in “Kill the Moon.” He does get in a bit of grandstanding (mainly “poncing about in a big plane”), perhaps a bit too much. I’ve been giving the guitar playing and the sonic Wayfarers a lot of rope, but with this episode they may have hung themselves. The Doctor doesn’t need to strum pensively every time he finds himself alone in the TARDIS. These motifs are starting to look less like Capaldi’s grace notes for his Doctor’s character and more like the desperate attempt at cool their detractors always said they were. It doesn’t help that he refers to himself as “Doctor Disco” and “Doctor Funkenstein” over the course of the episode. Relax, dude.

Doctor Who: “The Magician’s Apprentice”

That Moffat! Who else would be so clever as to start off a new season with an RTD finale?

The first time I saw this episode, I was almost certain the boy on the battlefield would reveal he was “Adolf Hitler.” And to all intents and purposes, he did.

And just as there is really only one time-travel story involving Hitler*, there is only one time-travel story involving Davros. He is superfluous to “Destiny of the Daleks,” “Resurrection of the Daleks,” and “Remembrance of the Daleks,” any of which could easily have written him out. He is a tedious mouthpiece in “Journey’s End.” Only “Revelation of the Daleks” makes any dramatically interesting use of him, but it is not so much a Davros story as it is a story with Davros in it. No: if you are going to do a Davros story, you are going to do THE Davros story, “Genesis of the Daleks.” That’s the only one that happens while Davros exists but the Daleks as an independent species do not, at least not in Episode One. That’s the one that asks: if you could stop one of the most evil forces in the universe from coming into being, but you would have to commit an evil act to do it, should you?

In that story, which is quoted directly in “The Magician’s Apprentice,” the evil act is destroying a roomful of Kaled mutants destined for Dalek shells. In this one, the evil act is killing Davros himself as a child, or at least leaving him with a thousand-to-one chance of survival, and the decision is very much in the Doctor’s hands. It puts that moral question, the Doctor Who version of “if you had a time machine, would you go back and kill Hitler?”, in terms that require some resolution. Even if you’ve pondered this question many times in philosophy classrooms or late-night student lounge discussions, it’s a cinch that many viewers haven’t, particularly the young ones. So this should be gripping TV.

And it is, but not because of Davros. Both actors playing him are fine, though compared to Michael Wisher in “Genesis” and Terry Molloy in “Revelation” I still think Julian Bleach is a poor third in the Davros steeplechase. It’s just that rather than being reminded of why this question even matters, refreshing our memories about the Daleks’ Naziesque atrocities, we’re presented instead with a threat to the Doctor’s TARDIS and his friends. Perhaps we’ve all seen so many Dalek stories by now, heard the Doctor play them up as the ultimate enemy so many times, that we don’t need reminding that they are a threat to the entire universe, but surely in a story like this, it wouldn’t hurt to throw in a few scenes of the Daleks occupying and sterilizing several planets, showing them as active, ongoing threats, not just personal foes. Maybe we’ll get some of that in the second part, now that it’s been revealed, in what can hardly have come as a shock to anyone, that Davros has some Daleks hanging around with him.

So why is it gripping? In a word, Missy.

She’s the best Master since Delgado, we’re all correctly saying. She might be the best Master, period, some of us are quite reasonably suspecting. She might still seem a little capricious, and a little too preoccupied with the Doctor himself rather than having any independent goals, but the discussion of her relationship with him is priceless. It does for Missy what “The Doctor’s Wife” does for the TARDIS. And Michelle Gomez doesn’t so much steal every scene as steal the entire show.

Capaldi, on the other hand, is saddled with playing a delicate balance in his biggest scene: he has to show us a Time Lord scared for his very life and hiding it with desperate attempts to be cool (the guitar), funny (the dad jokes), and cool/funny (the “dude” jokes). To give the scene the most possible credit is to assume it intended for the Doctor to seem nervous and dorky, not for the scene to seem nervous and dorky. Capaldi almost pulls it off.

Then there’s Clara. I should love her: a companion with an independent life, a clever mind, an iron nerve, and a history of snogging Jane Austen. I still don’t. Perhaps she’s just too impossible.

I keep forgetting Kate Stewart was even in the story. It’s as though Moffat, the directors, and the costume designers are going out of their way to make her forgettable every time she appears, and Redgrave has never had so little to work with as she does here.

And then there’s Colony Sarff, as nervous and dorky a concept as the Doctor’s arena entrance. Perhaps in a different story he (I mean they) would fit, but here they just seem incongruous. The need to wheel in what looks like a roller-skating Skeletor henchman as an “intimidating” Davros catspaw underscores the fact that the Daleks are, time and again, just not menacing enough. I mean, we already know Davros is the key figure in this story. Would it spoil that much suspense to just have Daleks bust in on the Maldovarium, the Shadow Proclamation, and Karn? Why wouldn’t that be scarier?

The answer is revealing: because the Daleks aren’t scary. We never see the pepperpots themselves being scary anymore. We need eyestalks popping out of people’s heads, humans turned into pigs, or an old scientist with a ruined face and a mechanical hand to make them seem scary. These are space Nazis, for goodness’ sake. It shouldn’t be hard for a Dalek to be the least cuddly creature in the universe. And yet even when it’s threatening to kill you, all you want to do is hug it. Ask Rose.

* “What about ‘Let’s Kill Hitler,'” you’re asking? Exception proving the rule: our time team shoves him in a cupboard. The story goes out of its way NOT to involve him.